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  • Eddie Hewitt


Updated: Nov 10, 2020

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, The Barbican – Saturday 11th November 2017

In Coriolanus, Shakespeare shows us what happens when you give in to other people pushing you into the public domain, but still insist on being yourself. We see a man who is “true to himself in every way regardless of the consequences” (Angus Jackson, director). Sope Dirisu makes his RSC debut gloriously in the title role of this tragic thriller. The first of four Roman plays tracking the ascendance and decline of an empire.

Opening the season for Rome 2500BC / MMXVII (RSC image)

We first see the returning champion as Caius Marcius in a stylish tuxedo. But for a bow tie slightly askew, he is completely on point, making the grandest of entrances. The other characters make way for him like the parting of the red sea. Or, he’s that guy walking onto a yacht in Carly Simon’s song, You’re So Vain. Vain? Proud, certainly. Bloody loves himself! Loves what he has accomplished. Loves his mum Volumnia (Haydn Gwynne), and his wife Virgilia (Hannah Morrish), in that order. Making up the three Vs is Valeria (Katherine Toy), a friend of the family. A fourth V, for good measure, is Victory.

Sope Dirisu. On point as Caius Marcius

All production photos: Helen Maybanks (c) RSC

Next, we see the warrior in combats. Drenched in blood. The first of seven or eight costume changes for him in the play. The blood is glistening. Gorily authentic. He exits, sliding underneath a falling gate Indiana Jones style, kills a few more Volsces (pronounced 'Volskies', Volscians in full), and comes back again looking even bloodier. Caius Marcius may be a hero, but he is not a nice man. He is a destroyer. The scourge of Corioli. His next move is to walk into a political battlefield.

Coriolanus: supporting the empire

This Shakespeare tragedy is astonishing. There is so much talk of action, so much blood, but so little actual conflict on stage. The worst occurs in the final scene, and even that is a bit muffled. There is so much prattle, especially early on. Most of it by Menenius (Paul Jesson).The programme notes refer to the language being “exceptionally rich and challenging”. It sometimes goes beyond this description. Way beyond. This is Shakespeare’s second longest play after Hamlet. Thankfully the RSC managed to lose about an hour by cutting a few scenes where the great Bard was deemed to have repeated himself or offered inconsequential babble. “Best stop there”, I can almost hear Angus Jackson saying.

The wordy Menenius (Paul Jesson)

In the market place, stirred up by the self-aggrandised tribunes, the public want to hear their hero speak and see his wounds. Herein lies the problem. Coriolanus doesn’t like the public. Wipes his hand after shaking it with the hand of one of the mob. Addresses them thus:

“You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate”.

Not long after, he is banished.

I have some sympathy for Coriolanus. Why should anyone have to bare their scars? Is it not enough to incur them in the first place?

Leaving home ain't easy. Coriolanus and Virgilia (Hannah Morrish)

As noted with the tuxedo, the clothes are modern in this production, but you barely notice after the opening scene. The presence of the fork lift truck to shift bags of corn is anomalous, but it soon disappears. Linking with politics today, we are left with some very annoying tribunes, spin doctors / agitators, stirring up the public with gusto. Smugly celebrating the overthrowal of a man too proud to walk amongst the people.

In a far away city, countless lives have been lost. Widows and orphans have been left behind. It was quite poignant seeing this play on Armistice Day (the eleventh of the eleventh), with poppies strewn across London and children’s pictures of the trenches and German Messerchmitts on the walls inside Ascot railway station. All that stupid, pointless killing.

Coriolanus the war monger?

And yet, here we have a hero. A theatrical hero who most of us, probably, warmed to. In contrast we see a weak, fawning Aufidius (brilliantly played by James Corrigan), who ends up getting some kind of revenge in an act that is cowardly and futile, and instantly regrets his actions. One question for Will, though. If Aufidius has lost in battle with Coriolanus so many times, why is the perfidious wretch still alive to do his worst?

Bringing the opposition down once again, but only temporarily

But eventually Aufidius (James Corrigan) gets his man. His smile doesn't last

The exchanges between Coriolanus and Volumnia are touching. There are links here with Hamlet and his mother Gertrude. In both plays, love between mother and son gets in the way of decisive action. At the end, here, Volumnia and Virgilia go down on their knees. A boy child appears. There always seem to be a minor in these productions. Coriolanus eventually cracks, undone by his loved ones.

Leave me alone, Mum!

Unlike Hamlet, though, the protagonist has little self-awareness and there are no soliloquies. Coriolanus is an unusual Shakespearean tragic hero. This is one of the bard’s lesser known plays. Rarely performed. But a worthy one, with considerable relevance to our own problematic times. See Coriolanus: An anti-hero for our time here.

The set is simple and classical. It will be enhanced and turned into the forum for Julius Caesar. “Infamy, infamy. They’ve all got it in for me”. There is no resting on any laurels for the RSC. Just more Roman brilliance to come. More Love, Betrayal, Power, Corruption. Much as I would like to take in the whole cycle, my next helping of the RSC’s classical offerings will be served up in Titus Andronicus in January. I’m already horrified by the prospect.

Faces of Ancient Rome at the Barbican

© Eddie Hewitt 2017

All production photos by Helen Maybanks (c) RSC


The spelling of the hero’s name is Caius Marcius in the Alexander text and generally. It's Caius Martius in this production. No matter. It’s Coriolanus to you and me.


Connected Cultures feature: Coriolanus: An anti-hero for our time

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